Image of the US Capitol building with tear gas and trump supporters in front of it.
Police officers stand guard as supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump gather in front of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, U.S., January 6, 2021. REUTERS/Leah Millis TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

The US Congress was put into lockdown overnight after hundreds of Trump protesters stormed the Capitol yesterday afternoon in Washington D.C. 

The source of protesters’ anger was the meeting of Congress on Wednesday to certify the Electoral College results, confirming Biden as the next President of the United States. This came as news from Georgia also announced the expected Democrat Senate victories there. Many had come to believe that the vote was in fact a ruling on widespread claims of electoral fraud, fuelled by Trump’s repeated accusations and right wing media.

Early yesterday, President Trump gave a speech to the protesters, who have marched on the capital from across the country, praising their strength. The President proclaimed that ‘we will never concede’, promising he would join them on Capitol Hill. He subsequently retreated to the White House, tweeting to ask that the protesters ‘Stay peaceful!’

Many sources are, as yet, unconfirmed, as the protests continue to unravel. Here’s what we know so far…

  • Shortly after 1pm ET, hundreds of protesters broke through barriers around the Capitol perimeter. Just over an hour later they had pushed past security officers to enter the building.
  • Congress went into recess, delaying the certification of the election, and the floor was evacuated. Many representatives were put into panic rooms and gas masks were provided because of tear gas used by police in the rotunda.
  • Vice President Mike Pence, in charge of overseeing the vote, was evacuated. 
  • The Mayor of Washington announced a curfew in the capital from 6pm-6am.
  • Images have circulated of protesters subsequently entering the Chamber and freely walking through the building. One protester is pictured standing on the dial, shouting “Trump won that election”.
  • Around 3pm, there appears to have been an armed standoff at the entrance to the House, with shots fired. Firearms are banned in the capital and there have been several arrests today for violations of this.
  • A woman has been shot dead by security forces and a further 3 died due to ‘medical emergencies’. 52 people were arrested.

Washington security forces, unable to cope with the mass of protesters, called for reinforcements, with the National Guard due to be deployed. Many of those Republicans who stood against the certification earlier in the day called for protesters to desist. Ted Cruz tweeted they must ‘stop NOW’ and that ‘Violence is always unacceptable.’ 

Whilst pressure grew for Trump to condemn the protests, Biden addressed the nation calling for a peaceful transition, demanding “President Trump, step up”. 

When Trump did eventually broadcast a message it was not quite the denouncement his opponents had hoped for. The President told protesters “You have to go home now. We have to have peace.”, but refused to condemn their unprecedented actions, insisting they were ‘special’ and ‘loved’. He repeated his claims that “this was a fraudulent election”, saying that he shared their pain and anger at the situation. 

It is unclear whether the President’s belated and conflicting message will be enough to dissuade further protests. Although the house floor itself was cleared, there are a series of ongoing threats including several reports of potential ‘pipe bombs’ throughout the city. One such device was safely detonated by security at the Republican National Committee headquarters earlier on Wednesday, but reports of more around the city are increasingly concerning.

As of this morning Congress has been able to reconvene, confirming Biden as the next President of the United States. Whilst this represents a temporary victory of order and democracy in the face of such opposition, the country remains severely shaken by yesterday’s insurrection,

Why are these protests so significant?

There is frankly no precedent in the US for action such as this. The US Capitol has not been breached by violence since the British attacked and burnt it down in 1814. From when George Washington was first elected President, the US has had a clean history of peaceful democratic transitions. In disturbing the certification of the electoral college results today, protesters ended that legacy. Not only that, but they did so with, what they perceived to be, the implicit consent of their leaders. Many were shocked as protesters appeared to remove US flags flying over the Senate and replace them with Trump’s campaign flags. As the former chief of the DC Metropolitan Police told CNN, this is “as close to a coup attempt as this country has ever seen.”

The United States is widely regarded as the homeland of modern democracy. Whatever critics of its international regime have claimed, it has always ‘practiced what it preaches’ in maintaining a peaceful democratic process at home. These images have already spread across the globe: images of men with guns in the chamber, of protesters climbing on statues in the halls of the capital and shouting from the dias of the House. To all those countries where America has defended and implemented democracy – often with force – this marks a significant shift. Questions will be asked about how America can justify its international position, when it cannot defend its own domestic one, and any remaining ‘moral high-ground’ for the States may be severely diminished in relations moving forwards. America has not just strayed from the ideals it advocates, it is also displaying a growing vulnerability that others may seek to exploit.

This also comes at a time when the US is already processing a year of considerable unrest. Besides facing some of the highest Covid-19 rates in the world, America has seen a series of significant protests over police brutality towards its black citizens. It is difficult for onlookers this week not to draw comparisons between the two. If hundreds of armed non-white protesters had stormed the House today, many are aware how much bloodier this response may have been. As some on social media have highlighted, violent protesters even making it into that chamber alive demonstrated America’s white privilege problem. Only months before, Black Lives Matter protesters stood in Washington facing far more deadly clashes with the security forces and soldiers lining the steps of Capitol Hill. This time Trump did not hesitate to call in the National Guard – threatening to use the military against his citizens – and labelling the protesting groups “violent mobs”. This is a far cry from the “special” and “loved” majority-white protesters who invaded the Capitol building today. 

Perhaps the only hopeful side in the vast repercussions of these events is that, much to these loyal supporters’ dismay, it could finally spell the end for Trump. Even before the protests erupted, Republican Mitch McConnell gave a blistering speech openly rejecting Trump’s challenge to the election results, and warning of the dangerous precedent he was setting. Similarly, Vice President Mike Pence told the President he would not interfere in Congress’ confirmation of Biden’s victory later that day. While Representative Omar’s response that she is drawing up articles of impeachment for Trump may not be fully realised, it is an indicator that the tide may be about to turn against him. Although most Republicans have stood by the President and his claims until now, several of them have expressed public outrage at the protests he encouraged. For many who were barricaded in those panic rooms yesterday, the principles and precedent of peaceful democracy may prove too important, and indeed too dangerous, to forsake.

It is possible that what we are witnessing is the death throes of Trumpism, finally setting itself alight. Yet it is equally possible that we are in fact witnessing a much more worrying phenomenon: the birth of a new, more threatening, phase of Trumpist disorder, and its evolution away from traditional democracy. The only certainty is that, whatever we are witnessing, the world is watching.